Taking Female Representation To The Next Level. Also Homicidal Mania.

First off, I have to warn you: this article is going to have spoilers for Parasite Eve! You’ve been warned...

Just in time for its 20th Anniversary, I recently revisited the 1998 cult classic Parasite Eve. A landmark title for the PS1, this action RPG is a sonic blend of sci-fi and Japanese horror primed for fans of franchises like The Fly or the Alien films.

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In the age of the first Resident Evil game, Parasite Eve looked to offer a different horror experience.

Produced by Hironobu Sakaguchi and directed by Takashi Tokita, Parasite Eve was Squaresoft’s first M-rated game. A sequel to the Japanese novel by Hideaki Sena, the game traverses seven days in New York City, which is besieged by the threat of antagonist Eve -- a parasitic being looking to ignite a revolution via evolution - on a cellular level. Eve’s endgame is the uprising of the mitochondria within the cell, and through various means and mutations, she corrupts living beings into monsters as the mitochondria in their cells overtake the nuclei. Lead character Aya Brea and her team seek to take down Eve before she wipes out the city and gives birth to an “Ultimate Being,” which will bring about the downfall of humanity and their nucleus-led cell structure.

Even if it's been 20 years, there's still something great in re-watching the intro to an old favorite game.

We can talk all day about Parasite Eve’s nostalgic value, its big fat kisses to 90s NYC and buddy cop movies, the hilariously dated cutscenes, and some facets that didn’t age so gracefully (helloooo ethnic stereotypes!). However, for the purpose of this article, let’s look at one specific topic.

Is That TWO Characters With XX Chromosomes On The Cover?

One of the facets that drew me to Parasite Eve was something obvious, yet completely daring. This game boasted a female protagonist and a female antagonist.

Let’s rewind the time machine here...before Ellie (The Last Of Us), Aloy (Horizon Zero Dawn), or even Bayonetta. These days, we praise the rebooted Tomb Raider titles for humanizing and developing one of gaming’s reigning queens: Lara Croft. However, when the original Tomb Raider was released in 1996, Lara Croft skyrocketed because she was developedin other ways….pointy triangular ways…

In other words, female-fronted games were still a novelty in the 90s.

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Squaresoft, however, never shied away from strong female characters in their RPGs. From the maternal nature of Aerith (Final Fantasy 7) or Rosa (Final Fantasy 4), to feisty heroines like Marle and Ayla (Chrono Trigger), these women were, in many respects, pioneering characters of the genre.

Squaresoft took another leap forward with Aya Brea -- the 25-year-old cop who is the face of Parasite Eve. Let’s start with the most blatant chance they took with this character: she wears clothes. Normal clothes. Jeans, t-shirt, and a leather jacket. Sure, she dons a sexy black number for the opera scenes, but even then, it’s classy evening attire vs. the typical “fan-service” skin usually applied to such characters. Bold choice, Squaresoft.

Unfortunately, Parasite Eve 2 and Parasite Eve: The 3rd Birthday got sober and thought “how could we have a female character and not sexualize her?” before then proceeding to get wasted on shower scenes and other unnecessary “oops, my clothes fell off” tropes. That's another story for another day.

Beyond aesthetics, there are some deeper assets that make Aya ahead of her time. Not only do you play as Aya in the game, but she is the only character you inhabit in the game, from start to finish. She is all you got; the end. Hell, her trusty sidekicks Daniel (her partner on the police force) and Maeda (a scientist) don’t even give you “assists” in combat. While Aya runs around in free-range active-time-battle-style combat, rifling through ranged weapon and “magic” attacks (known as “Parasite Energy”), you can’t summon Maeda to throw you medicine. Daniel won’t appear for some kitschy “power of friendship” tech attack ala Chrono Trigger (though that would be awesome! They’d be standing back-to-back in some Lethal Weapon-esque shoot out, where they inevitably high-five before he leaves the screen... but uh, I digress...). Aya is all you have, for better or worse.

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The nods to buddy cop movies are great, but the game makes it obvious that its Aya in the driver's seat.

The point is that this decision makes Aya is one of the most self-reliant protagonists I’ve seen in an RPG, female or male. You don’t balance the party, or split jobs to each member of your team. To beat Parasite Eve is to ensure that Aya is properly equipped, properly leveled, and has her sh*t together. Sister is doing it for herself, y’all.

The writing even cleverly gives Aya a reason to handle everything alone. Because of her mitochondrial abilities, she isn’t affected by many of Eve’s powers, unlike the rest of the citizens of New York. For example, there’s a scene when Aya and Daniel enter Central Park, and due to Eve’s proximity, Daniel’s arm erupts into flames (you don’t want to know what’s happening to the other folks at the park). Aya is immune to this, so she proceeds to track down Eve on her own. She is literally the only one who could take on the task, which gives the player a sense of her burden.

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Aya's a bad ass for dealing with some of the terrible bosses in this game. Also, if the name "Nina Tucker" gives you chills, you might want to prepare yourself for this sequence ahead of time.

Beyond her gameplay mechanics, Aya is a very nuanced character. As an NYC cop, it would have been very easy to construct her as the tomboy -- mean and masculine, with a healthy dose of “this is my fight, I don’t need anyone else!" syndrome. This lazy concept has diminished other characters into one-note poster boards that fail to engage the player (sorry Lightning, but I never loved ya). Rather than succumbing to this characteristic via “insert-tragic-backstory-that-hardened-the-character-here,” Aya is tenacious and capable, but also sensitive. The writing of her backstory gives her a personal investment in the game’s storyline. She is haunted by the loss of her sister Maya, and is often seen ruminating about it (especially after seeing “ghosts” of Maya throughout the game). She gets quiet and pensive about it, but never weakened by it. In fact, these emotional ties strengthen her resolve. She is also trying to harness her own mitochondrial power, and why she has these abilities. Through these trials, Aya’s character is focused and level-headed. She's emotionally deep yet never loses her cool. At the time of its release, it was rare to see those qualities in most characters, much less a female one. The game isn’t afraid to show that she is emotionally affected by her predicament, but that she’s also pressing forward despite her fear.

So, How About That Other Lady?

Aya may be the lead character, but master villainess Eve gives Parasite Eve its style and atmosphere. The moment we first lay eyes on her, inhabiting the body of an opera singer as she belts out an aria on the stage of Carnegie Hall, she sets the tone and the mood of the story. One devious look from her plotting eyes, and stage actors and opera attendees spontaneously combust, causing chaos in the theater. It sets the pace and urgency in the first ten minutes of the game. Aya follows her down into the sewers, and eventually, Eve -- a parasite -- overtakes the body of the singer, transforming her into a hellish undefiniable nightmare. All of this boils down to a question most players ask: what the hell is her story?

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Eve is the Sephiroth to Aya’s Cloud. They share a common thread, but take a different approach. She inherently “teaches” Aya about her mitochondrial strengths, and pushes Aya to hunt her down due to her nefarious endeavors.

A cross between an alien sexual fantasy and malicious maternal force, Eve takes several female character tropes and turns them on their head. She is significantly more sexualized in appearance than Aya (in one of her final forms, she’s nude with wings), but she doesn’t fall into the overused “femme fatale” category of your typical female villain. In the aesthetic sense, she retains the pretty face of Melissa Pierce -- the human she overtook. Her body however is contorted: hair is stretched into horn-like steeples, massive hands menace you with elongated fingers, and she has what appears to be a fin or tentacle where her legs should be. Again, it would have been so cliche to make her the “hot” villain, but they chose to make her ugly. That word is a faux pas when it comes to women, especially in the 90s. Though I cannot speak to Eve’s design in the original book, there’s something special about the confidence in her portrayal. Squaresoft had enough assurance in Eve’s character, motivation, and uniqueness that they didn’t beautify her. There’s an odd power in allowing her to be grotesque.

There’s also something inherently more interesting going on here than your standard story. Philosophically speaking, in most JRPG’s, the typically male villain wants to destroy. Destroy the world, the universe, the MacGuffin talisman of whosafudge, you name it. In comparison, this woman wants to CREATE. Her name is Eve, for crying out loud, so maybe it shouldn't be that much of a surprise: she aims to be the matron who literally “births” the next evolution of living entities. In the ramped up stakes of the third act, instead of the Big Bad almost leveling the city or setting off a bomb, Eve is (*gasp*) pregnant.

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Parasite Eve took one of the core essences of the female identity, and twisted it into a vulgar raison d’atre for the antagonist. There is something deliciously sinister and exciting about taking a foundational aspect of the feminine being and contorting it into the ultimate horror. Is there anything scarier than taking something as beautiful as motherhood -- the female gift of creating new life -- and molding it into something ugly?

These creative decisions allow Eve to stand as a dynamic counter to Aya, as well as a villain who stands out from the pack. The unease she brings feels more personal to me than other maniacs like Wesker, and it's probably because of just how twisted her desires have become.

A Strangely Thoughtful Relic In Video Game History

Aya Brea and Eve may not have earned the popularity they deserved as leading ladies, but their contributions to the canon of female-fronted games cannot be denied. Parasite Eve went above and beyond in creating a horror masterpiece that deceptively triumphs with deeply-weaved feminine themes, but without being too heavy-handed. While some problems such as tank-controlling characters and low resolution polygons deserve to be kept in a closed history book, it's really a shame some of the plot and character ideas of this game weren't carried over more in the years to come.

However, with the recent news that Parasite Eve has been trademarked in Europe, maybe there could be something new to look forward to?

Either way, if you haven’t dipped your toe into the Parasite Eve pool yet, definitely do so. There’s plenty of storyline I didn’t get into here, and whether you are a feminist-leaning gamer who nerds out on narrative nods to female themes (like myself) or just a lover of classic JRPGs, you owe yourself a playthrough of this title.